Most people facing the threat of a bushfire did not follow the contentious “stay or go early” policy and instead adopt a wait and see attitude, often trying to leave when it was too late, an expert on bushfire fatalities has told the Black Saturday royal commission.In many cases they waited until they saw smoke or received an official warning about an approaching fire before making a decision on whether to stay or go.
Dr Katharine Haynes, a research fellow at the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre, said her analysis of 552 civilian bushfire deaths in Australia showed that the largest percentage of victims died while trying to evacuate late.
Under the stay or go policy people should decide before a fire season began whether they would stay and defend or evacuate on days of bushfire threat, she said.
If they decide to go, they must leave early.
Dr Haynes said she still supported the stay or go policy, which was complex, but had yet to analyse the 173 Black Saturday deaths.
But she agreed with counsel assisting the inquiry Rachel Doyle that studies had found most people did not leave early but adopted a wait and see attitude.
Dr Haynes’ analysis of bushfire deaths between 1900 and 2007 showed 31.9 per cent of victims died trying to evacuate late.
This compared to 26.3 per cent who died outside trying to defend properties and 8.3 per cent who inside a defendable building or shelter.
Between 1956 and 2007, 25.7 per cent of victims died while evacuating late.
Dr Haynes said the bodies of male bushfire victims were predominately found outside, where they were actively trying to defend properties, while females were found inside buildings.
The percentage of people killed sheltering inside a defendable building had increased in recent years.
Between 1956 and 2007 the percentage killed while sheltering inside was 13.6 per cent, compared to 3.7 per cent between 1900 and 1955.
Of those killed inside structures, 74.3 per cent were passively sheltering, which meant they were making no apparent effort to defend the building.
While male victims had initially outnumbered females, this trend began to change during the 1967 Hobart fires, when equal numbers of women and men were killed.
This trend has continued, she said.
Dr Haynes saaid the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 showed many people under estimated the ferocity of bushfires.